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Lorne Michaels’ Star-Studded Comedy Show Was Canceled After 9 Episodes

May 1, 2024 - Movies

Summary

  • Michaels’ attempt at something ‘new’ with
    The New Show
    resulted in a confusing blend of
    SNL
    -style sketches and experimental comedy.
  • The series was unique from the start, with Steve Martin reading its ‘Statement of Principles,’ but the show unequivocally failed and was canceled after nine episodes.
  • Michaels returned to SNL after realizing that sometimes sticking with what works is better than trying to reinvent the wheel.



Lorne Michaels may be famous for Saturday Night Live, but there was a period between 1980 and 1985 when Michaels had stepped away from the show and wandered into the wilderness of prime-time television. One of his unique failures was the sketch comedy series The New Show, titled as if to reiterate that Michaels had moved on from SNL and, like God in Isaiah 43:19, was “doing something new.” He barely had a chance to start.

Kevin Kline plays pool with John Candy; Paul Simon stars as Abraham Lincoln; Penny Marshall performs an elaborate breakdance routine; Jeff Goldblum sings a pop song about math, and Catherine O’Hara screams a punk song about hating her job, friends, and life. If it sounds like SNL on cough syrup, that’s kind of accurate. Michaels obviously wanted to do something ‘new,’ but he also knew what had worked for him before.


The result was a weird middle ground that featured multiple guest hosts per episode, no (or very different kinds of) monologues, sketches that ran two or three times the length of Saturday Night Live‘s skits, and weird, conceptual comedy without punchlines. It would fail miserably, and Michaels would return from his sabbatical to SNL.


The New Show and Steve Martin’s Statement of Principles

The New Show only had three actors on staff (Valri Bromfield, Buck Henry, and Dave Thomas, all from SCTV), and would rely on a cavalcade of guest hosts to interact with them. Those ‘hosts’ included Steve Martin, Carrie Fisher, Raul Julia, Gilda Radner, Dennis Quaid, Rick James, Candice Bergen, Steve Guttenberg, and Teri Garr, plus all the aforementioned actors. Many of the sketches were filmed live on Thursday night, and the show aired Friday nights at 10p.m. after rapid post-production.


The first episode opened with Steve Martin imitating Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” music video, mildly injuring himself in the process. Then the show went to commercial break, and returned with a random sketch. There was no mention of what The New Show was, no thematic glue. But if you stuck around after a while, Steve Martin appeared and read a manifesto of sorts, The New Show‘s so-called ‘Statement of Principles.’

The New Show advertisement 1984
CBS


The people here at The New Show feel a certain responsibility to state, from the very beginning, just what it is they stand for,” said Martin. “Therefore, they have asked me to read a ‘Statement of Principles,’ to which each and every member of the show shall be bound. They are ambitious goals — some too ambitious — but then, that’s the kind of people we are. First, we will obey the laws of the State of New York, provided they don’t conflict with our own whims.” He continued with the principles:

  • We promise to practice our lines over and over again, until they are the goodest they can be.
  • We promise never to accept any sponsor whose product latches onto your face or busts out your chest.
  • We will never be doing a sketch then suddenly aim the camera at the sun, so that it blinds everybody.
  • We will never, for so-called entertainment purposes, ever stretch a pig or other farm animal beyond its normal length.
  • We will never refer to any President, either living or dead, as Sam the Chowderhead.
  • We promise to provide clean wholesome humor, the kind that can be enjoyed by the whole damn family.
  • We will leave our mark on television as surely as the whippoorwill leaves its eggs in a pile of old rags.
  • We will never make fun of a Waterpik or any other gum-irritating appliance.
  • We will never hire on our writing staff anyone who bites the heads off chickens, unless he has an official geek permit.
  • We will never re-use or recycle old gags and jokes, as surely as my name is Sam the Chowderhead.


“If we amuse you, then we have done our job. But if we also make you stop and think — we have failed,” added Martin. “A lot of people say we can never live up to these high ideals. They say we have bitten off more than we can chew. To these people, I can only throw back my head and laugh the laugh of a guy who’s had more women than more people have noses. Thank you, and goodnight.” While The New Show may have lived up to these “high ideals,” it was nonetheless clear that they had indeed bitten off more than they could chew.

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Lorne Michaels’ Highly Anticipated Follow-Up to Saturday Night Live

The New Show title cards
CBS

There was a big media push for The New Show, with Michaels and others giving a bevy of interviews. One was with The New York Times on New Year’s Day, perfect for a new show. Michaels was portrayed as a confident kingmaker who knew what he was doing. ”One of the things I am good at is bringing good people together and allowing them to play,” said Michaels in the interview. “I am trying to devise a format to keep writers alive and at the same time not be so different that nothing is the same from week to week.” He added:

It’s hard to figure out what the baby is and what the bathwater is. And even when you do figure it out, you can’t beat it into the ground by repeating too much.’


“He can think of only two subjects that he should avoid,” continued The New York Times’ piece, “‘calling into question the divinity of Christ and anything about sex with children. Both I am willing to forgo – for the first season, at least.'” In a Washington Post piece published two days after the premiere of The New Show, Tom Shales wrote:

“Michaels himself has said it will take a while for
The New Show
to get its bearings. In pre-show interviews, he kept refusing to describe the program. Now it appears he just honestly didn’t know quite what it was going to be. After staying up all night Thursday editing the show (it took two hours to tape the hour), Michaels said from New York, ‘I think it’s on its way to becoming something.
It’s a hybrid of sorts. It has one foot in Saturday Night Live and another foot in we-don’t-know-what-yet
. I’m certainly not displeased with it.'”


2:11

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The New Show Dies and ‘We Got the Worst of Both Instead’

Audiences and CBS were certainly displeased, however. The New Show was ultimately the lowest-rated of 94 television shows from the 1983–84 season; Lorne Michaels may have created ‘The Not Ready for Prime Time Players’ quasi-satirically, but The New Show adopted that title literally. It was canceled after nine episodes. Michaels had hoped he’d have more time to hone the series — he had struck gold with SNL, after all. Here’s how Michaels described The New Show on April 11, 1984, about three weeks after its cancelation:


“The show is going to change up until the final moment. The thing I like is t
here’s some sort of optimism in continually trying to make it better as you get closer to it
. Then at a certain point, hopefully it will be like the Jolly Green Giant metaphor —’picked at the moment of perfection.’ It either happens and you get it; or you push it ahead another 10 minutes to another hour to another 10 days.”

Michaels ran out of time, though. As senior editor John Fortenberry said on Nov. 19, 1984, “What Lorne tried to do was get the best of both live and taped TV. Unfortunately, the result was that we got the worst of both instead.” Fortenberry spoke with George M. Plasketes for his Bowling Green State University dissertation, “The Comic and Artistic Vision of Lorne Michaels and the Production of Unconventional Television.”


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Confusing New with Good and Returning to SNL

SNL logo for Saturday Night Live
NBC

Whatever one says about the state of the series now, it’s clear that Saturday Night Live deeply changed the face of sketch comedy, variety shows, and late-night television. It changed the blueprint, and was endlessly imitated (and deconstructed). In 1984, it was arguably still too soon to change the format. People often don’t care about getting something ‘new;’ they want something ‘good’ or ‘better.’ Fans of superhero movies haven’t attacked flicks like Madame Web and Morbius because they want something new; they just want something good. Perhaps Michaels, in an attempt to define himself beyond SNL, forsook the ‘good’ for ‘the new.’


It must be strange to recognize that, by the age of 30, you’ve done the best and most popular thing you’ll ever accomplish. But that’s exactly the truth which Michaels was forced to face after The New Show. “Nothing I ever do will have the same impact,” said Michaels of Saturday Night Live. Before The New Show failed miserably, Michaels told The New York Times:

I know with a career you are supposed to move on to something better. But Saturday Night Live was built around my compulsions — comedy, news and music. Was I then supposed to go do a quiz show or a situation comedy?

Michaels returned to Saturday Night Live in 1985, and the series began one of its greatest eras in 1986 thanks to the hiring of people like Dana Carvey, Nora Dunn, Al Franken, Phil Hartman, Jan Hooks, Jon Lovitz, and Kevin Nealon. Michaels would guide the show through multiple periods of comic brilliance. SNL may have stopped being must-watch television 15 years ago or so, but it’s understandable why nothing Michaels will ever do can compare.


Then again, he produced The Kids in the Hall when it came to television in 1988. Maybe he learned a lesson from The New Show.

The New Show is not streaming anywhere and is unavailable on home media. You can find user-uploaded sketches and episodes on YouTube and Reddit.


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